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Moving Beyond the Politics of Pity

Pity as political strategy, if it was ever truly worthwhile, has run its course.

· 10 min read
Moving Beyond the Politics of Pity
In a clockwise direction: Lindsey Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Brandy Shufutinsky, Erec Smith, Zora Neale Hurston, Daryl Michael Scott, and Raven J. James in the middle.

In “Please Don’t Forget About Black Joy This Month,” Raven J. James laments the fact that the most well-known and critically acclaimed movies featuring black characters focus on some kind of trauma. Whether depicting the trials of slavery, the tribulations of Jim Crow, or the indignities of downtrodden lifestyles, movies depicting black protagonists take place within a miasma of trauma that has become synonymous, or at least strongly correlated, with the very concept of blackness.

Regarding the ubiquity of what she calls the “Black Trauma” genre of films, James writes, “It just lets me know that we need more black stories that don’t center around us fighting, struggling, and suffering all the time. More than just depicting our joy, we need to support films that can show us being something other than victims.”

I couldn’t agree more. But while James points this practice out, I want to ask another question: what is the reason for this phenomenon? Why do scholars and activists seem to prefer black misery?

This question, or some variation of it, is nothing new. In The Politics of Black Joy, philosopher Lindsey Stewart suggests the preference for black misery is part of what is called “neo-abolitionism,” or the politics of black pity, which she defines as a white liberal desire “that black folks be represented in terms of tragedy or ‘pity.’”

Stewart focuses her argument on the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, who also lamented society’s preference for black misery. In her essay “Negroes Without Self Pity,” Hurston wrote, “Look back over your shoulder for a minute. Count the years if you take in the twenty-odd years of intense Abolitionist speaking and writing that preceded the Civil War, the four war years, the Reconstruction period and recent Negro rights agitations, you have at least a hundred years of indoctrination of the Negro that he is an object of pity.”

For Hurston, black victimhood was a choice that too many Americans considered an inevitability.

Ultimately, Hurston saw no benefit in living in the past. In fact, she felt too much attention to the past was a significant reason why many black people could not find happiness in the present. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston wrote, “Therefore, I see nothing but futility in looking back over my shoulder in rebuke at the grave of some white man who has been dead too long to talk about. That is just what I would be doing in trying to fix the blame for the dark days of slavery and Reconstruction.”

Hurston’s refusal to embrace the negative emotionality often aligned with black people allowed her to “Get mellow and think kindly of the world.” Regarding why she can do so, she wrote, “I think I can be like that because I have known the joy and pain of deep friendship. I have served and been served. I have made some good enemies for which I am not a bit sorry. I have loved unselfishly, and I have fondled hatred with the red-hot tongs of Hell. That’s living.”

These empowered words got her ostracized from the black and white literati, and this brilliant woman died in abject poverty for it.

What incentive did neo-abolitionists have for trying to present Hurston’s outlook as inappropriate? Going back farther, we can see how pity is preferred over admiration in racial justice work even when it comes to Frederick Douglass, whose disdain for the politics of pity is clear in his parting tiff with William Lloyd Garrison and other “classical” abolitionists. The latter party’s insistence that the freed slaves should be nothing more than props for political progressivism was a source of great humiliation and frustration for Douglass.

In Chapter 23 of My Bondage, My Freedom, Douglass said the people urged him to “Let us have the facts.” He described conversations he had with George Foster and John Collins, both prominent abolitionists.

“So also said Friend George Foster,” wrote Douglass, “who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. ‘Give us the facts,’ said Collins, ‘we will take care of the philosophy.’” Douglass was embarrassed by this incident, especially the latter statement, which came from Collins, who insisted that Douglass had what it took to be an abolitionist himself. Clearly Collins saw Douglass’s mere display—his presentation as black and downtrodden—as the most he could contribute. Douglass continued with the following passage:

“Tell your story, Frederick,” would whisper my then revered friend, William Lloyd Garrison, as I stepped upon the platform. I could not always obey, for I was now reading and thinking. New views of the subject were presented to my mind. It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them. I could not always curb my moral indignation for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy, long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts which I felt almost everybody must know. Besides, I was growing, and needed room. “People won’t believe you ever was a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way,” said Friend Foster. “Be yourself,” said Collins, “and tell your story.” It was said to me, “Better have a little of the plantation manner of speech than not; ’tis not best that you seem too learned.”

Douglass’s mission was to show the world the black man deserved not just freedom, but respect. However, the very white abolitionists trying to fulfill that mission showed him little respect as a person; to them, Douglass was a political prop they could use for their political purposes. Collins’s imperative to “be yourself” is quite telling; for him, an astute and philosophical black man was not really a black man.

One could say the abolitionists’ insistence Douglass act more like an uneducated slave than an educated freeman was not racism but pragmatism that, at times, lapsed into a cold and rational instrumentalism. One could say referring to Douglass as an object—an “it” instead of a “he”—was an attempt to meet audiences where they were—steeped in white supremacy—in order to get their needed attention and guide them to where they needed to be: supporters of abolition.

However, the indignities of this strategy were too much for Douglass to bear. He thought knowledge and sound reason would be a sufficient approach to the abolition of slavery and the entry of blacks into first-class citizenry.

His abolitionist colleagues, on the other hand, saw a politics of pity as their best tactic. This is why Douglass would eventually prefer to be left alone rather than partnered with abolitionists. This is why, in “What the Black Man Wants,” Douglass wrote,

Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. … your interference is doing [the black man] a positive injury.

With allies like this, who needs enemies? For Douglass, the politics of pity aligned with a rhetoric of condescension and white superiority.

Both Douglass and Hurston complained about the abolitionists of their respective days—those who claimed to be the allies of black America and who are known for their work for racial justice—but this phenomenon continues into present-day America. Today, neo-abolitionists can be found in a variety of institutions and often push for policies put forth as aids to black Americans that could only be detriments.

The politics of pity render what otherwise may be beneficial and dignified practices as sites of racial misery. Restorative justice has its good manifestations, but, when applied to the politics of pity, makes bad situations worse by foregoing punishment for the most egregious infractions, and determining harm based on positionality. For example, if a victim of car theft is in a privileged class and the perpetrator is in an oppressed class, the victim isn’t truly a victim; the real victim is the perpetrator.

Educational reform is a potentially good and noble endeavor, but when applied to the politics of pity, it manifests as pedagogies like “equitable math,” in which getting the right answer and the very act of teaching are considered inherently racist harms to black students.

Agency is a good thing, but when applied to the politics of pity, it is something that simply isn’t available to black students. The politics of black pity may be a significant cause of what Martin Seligman and Steven Maier have called “learned helplessness.” This is how contemporary manifestations of the politics of pity put forth by teachers, administrators, and politicians “play the mischief” with black Americans.

From institutional examples, we can move to interpersonal manifestations. In this footage from Benjamin Boyce’s The Complete Evergreen Story, a black student is berated by other black students for declaring, “I’m not oppressed.”

Robin DiAngelo, a white woman and, arguably, a prominent leader in critical social justice, responded to the fact that white and black people disagree with her by dismissively stating “investment in protecting the status quo is deep.” On SiriusXM radio’s FOX Nation’s Reality Check hosted by David Webb, a black man, civil rights attorney Areva Martin, insisted that Webb must be white because only white privilege can cause the confident and optimistic demeanor he exuded. Activist Regina Jackson of the documentary Deconstructing Karen insists that, in over 400 years, black people are as miserable as they were 400 years ago. A white philosophy professor who takes this a step further and claims that , “in a non-metaphorical sense … The years 1492 and 1619 and 1857 and 1955 are still now.”

Lastly, in one of many personal incidents of this nature, a group of Twitter trolls think an organization run by both blacks and whites can be nothing but a front for white supremacy. For these activists and several others, black misery and powerlessness are universal facts. For those abiding by a politics of pity, such misery and powerlessness are requisite conditions for people of color, especially black people.

But even with all this, the question remains: why this preference for black pity over some other political strategy? In “I Am Not Your Negro,” Brandy Shufutinsky provides an answer that also recognizes that neo-abolitionism seems to be a multicultural but predominately white endeavor:

I wonder how those born into self-described privilege dare try to sweep aside those of us who were not. Could it be that the very perseverance and fortitude that we exhibit flies in the face of what they’re peddling at the sum of billions of dollars per year? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s something more sinister than greed. Maybe, just maybe, they’re bigots themselves. Do you know what a progressive bigot needs? She needs someone to save to alleviate her feelings of guilt. Progressive bigotry relies on victimhood, otherwise it fails. If there is no victim to save, no one to center, then the progressive bigot has nothing left to do—no work to “do” and no one to rant against for their privilege.

Shufutinsky indicts those who see white saviorism as a way to expiate guilt while maintaining superiority, those who see racial justice activism as a viable industry of sorts, and those who would use black pity for their own political ends. She believes contemporary racial justice activists “demand from black Americans a self-loathing similar to what racists of centuries past required” and “demand black people wear victimhood like a perverse badge of honor, just as racists long ago tried to force us to accept that we were not worthy of full human status.”

It is not clear if Shufutinsky is indicting all racist justice activists or just a portion, but her point is clear: black agency, fortitude, autonomy, and joy are characteristics antithetical to activists’ takes on “pro-black” social justice.

To be fair, one can understand why people thought—and think—that pity has substantial rhetorical significance. According to historian Daryl Michael Scott, activists and politicians often used “damage imagery”—depictions of blacks as psychologically damaged and, therefore, pitiable—to effect political change they thought would help black Americans.

Scott has noted throughout the history of American social justice, liberals sought reform capitulating “to the historic tendency of posing blacks as objects of pity.” Regarding the disposition of liberal activists, Scott writes, “Liberals proceeded as if most white Americans would have been willing to grant black people equal rights and services only if they were made to appear psychologically damaged and granted a special status as victims.”

However, in doing so, they simply reinforced white supremacy. “As they assaulted [white supremacy’s] manifestations in the law, they reinforced the belief system that made whites feel superior in the first place.”

Lindsey Stewart has noted that W.E.B. Du Bois saw political agency for Southern blacks only through the filter of pity. “The tendency to equate sorrow and tragedy with Blackness, or to call upon the sympathy of whites by drawing attention to Black pain, lingers in our political imaginary,” Stewart wrote.

For many seeking racial justice, pity and sympathy seem to be the best way to keep black wellbeing in the forefront of people’s minds and effect social and political change. Perhaps they believed that being pitiable was an improvement to being inferior, yet close enough to that inferiority to maintain a narrative still palatable to whites who had the power to effect positive changes in race relations.

In 2023, I do not believe we need a politics of pity as a political strategy. The rhetoric of pity has been incorporated into various institutions, including federal government, but even if it was the most viable strategy in the American past, the rhetoric and politics of pity have outlasted whatever efficacy they may have had. Eighty percent of black Americans are lower middle-class or higher, but the politics of pity will have you believe the other 20 percent is their most accurate depiction. Eighty percent of black children can have a GPA of a C- or higher, but the politics of pity will focus on the 20 percent with Ds and Fs to determine a crisis in the black student population.

Of course, we should pay attention to those most in need, but what we have now is a kind of “surplus pity” that is perpetuating delusions about the black American condition. Pity as political strategy, if it was ever truly worthwhile, has run its course. Many activists focused on racial justice wonder how they can do their part for Black History Month. Readers of this essay should take on Stewart’s request to determine “what happens when a show of suffering becomes a requirement for political recognition.”

“Black Trauma” cinema is only one manifestation. What others do you see in life? Determine if your conclusions about black Americans are couched in a politics of pity. Determine if the words you used to describe black Americans is steeped in a rhetoric of pity. Because it has been normalized in so many contexts, the politics of pity may be invisible to you. Ultimately, ask yourself if your ideas about racial justice are the result of a respect for one’s fellow citizens regardless of race, or are they the result of compulsory pity? If the former, you are contributing to a solution to racism. If the latter, you are part of the problem.

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